How to Listen to Audio Books and Actually Remember the Content

There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through an audio book to then realise you’ve not taken in anything that’s been said. That’s why I now listen like this…

I’ve had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with audio books so far in my life.

Obviously, reading is something I’ve always loved. But (as with most people, I imagine) I wished I did more of it. So the idea of being able to basically have all the wisdom of a book read to me wherever I am and (pretty much) whatever I’m doing was something I was majorly excited about upon first discovering audio books.

But then, with all the excitement of a child at Christmas, I actually tried it. And I was majorly disappointed. Like a child at Christmas who’s just discovered that all he’s getting is socks this year.

Turns out, when I’m being read something like this my brain turns into some kind of sieve. And I don’t just mean an ordinary sieve with little holes. I mean a big sieve that is basically one giant hole that every piece of information going into it falls right through.

The Problem with Audio Books

To be clear, I’ve only ever been interested in using audio books for non-fiction. In other words, shit I want to learn about. Fiction, on the other hand, is something I want to keep solely reserved for ‘proper reading’.

Naturally, I started listening to all these non-fiction self-help, personal development and philosophical books in the car and while walking places. But the problem was I’d arrive at my destination to realise that my brain had been thinking about something totally different for the previous 20 minutes and I couldn’t remember a word of what that nice audio book man had been trying to tell me.

So I stopped, decided audio books just aren’t for me, cancelled my membership and just basically kept to the traditional way of reading books.

Since then, however, I’ve become much more aware of my own individual learning style and how I personally learn new skills and take in new information. And with this in mind, I very recently decided to give this whole audio books thing another go.

This time, rather than just casting off audio books as something that would never work for me, I decided to embrace them and work out a way to make them work for me. And I think I cracked it.

So in this article, I just wanted to share the little system I devised to ensure that I actually take in and remember the audio books I listen to.

Does it take a bit more time and effort than just passively listening to any audio book? Yes. But, in my opinion, I’d rather actually take in the information from one book every 10 years, than get through 20 a month and not remember anything I’m being told.

If you’re someone who can listen to an audio book and just absorb everything that’s being said, then it’s also probably important to note here that: 1) You’re a lucky bastard. And 2) I’m not saying anyone has to do this. Rather, I’m just sharing what’s worked for me when I thought audio books weren’t gonna cut it in my world.

The System in a Nutshell

First off, it’s important to note that I didn’t steal this. But it’s also by no means some kind of complicated revolutionary system, so I imagine there are plenty of other people out there doing it.

For me, there’s no better form of injecting information into my brain than by absorbing it and taking my own notes. Hence why my previous efforts of just trying to sporadically listen to audio books went so horribly wrong.

Anyway, the basics of this are as follows:

  1. Head to the page of whichever book you’re going to listen to and select the ‘Look inside’ feature that will basically give you a preview of the book.
  2. Head to the ‘Table of Contents’ page and copy over the headings and sections into an Evernote, or whatever note taking device suits you best. (I have a separate notebook on Evernote that contains only notes on books).
  3. Listen to a chapter or section at a time, dependent on how big the chapters or sections are in the book you’re listening to and how much you personally can take in at a time.
  4. Go back to your Evernote whenever you have a spare 10 minutes and make notes on the sections you’ve just listened to.
  5. Repeat with the next chapter or section.

I told you it wasn’t anything out of this world special. But there are a few things that, from my point of view, are important to note here.

Firstly, I found it monumentally easier to take in the information being read to me if I already had a clear picture in my head of the chapters or subsections before I started listening.

In other words, I ensured I had the different subsections of the chapter I was listening to copied into my Evernote before I listened to it. I already knew the different subsections about to come at me. I’m not sure why, but when I tried doing it the other way, I just didn’t take in as much.

It’s also important to note that you’re not trying to memorise the whole book here. So if you go back to make your notes and can only come up with 10% of what you could the last time then it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes I go back and make notes and barely anything comes out. Sometimes I basically rewrite the book out! Maybe do a few Google searches to jog your memory on some things, but don’t waste time and dwell on this. These are your own notes on the book, and nobody is going to send you to the headmaster’s office for not doing it right.

Bonus Point #1: Listen Actively, Not Passively

My parents are two of ‘those people’ who always have the radio on in the background in their house. And this was the same throughout my growing up years.

Aside from making it eerily quiet when going to other ‘non-radio people’s’ houses, this also confirmed to be the reality that it is possible to have sound on in the background without really taking any note of it.

This is ‘passive listening’. Where the sound is there, but you’re not really listening. And this is what I was doing with audio books. Pushing play and then just heading off and doing all number of things distracting me from what’s really being said.

So this is why I made a rule with myself that I wouldn’t attempt to listen to audio books while doing something that needs a lot of focus and attention.

At the gym, for example, I am obviously focused on making sure that quite heavy bar (for me!) doesn’t come down and destroy my rib cage. When writing or working, I’m focused on writing or working. Energising music, yes. Audio book, no.

Walking to the gym (or anywhere), however, is prime time audio book listening time. I can walk and focus while taking in what’s being read to me.

Driving is a weird one, though. Obviously, you need to be focused on keeping the car on the road and not in the ditch next to the road, but most of the time we drive on a sort of ‘autopilot’. So I’ve found driving to be ok for ‘active listening’. As soon as some focused concentration is needed though (like if I get lost or am needing to find a parking space) the audio books gets the pause button.

In essence, what I’m trying to get across with this first step is that just because the audio book is playing, it doesn’t mean you’re taking in the info. I will only play an audio book when I’m doing something that doesn’t require my full, focused attention and would distract from what’s being said.

Bonus Point #2: Use Your Pause & Rewind Buttons

I believe one of the biggest mistakes I used to make with audio books was inadvertently focusing on quantity over quality.

Without really thinking about it, I wanted to just get through the book so I could just say that I’ve read it and get into the next one. This meant I would rarely pause or rewind, even if I knew I wasn’t listening fully or I’d missed something.

But, as I said earlier, the important thing with these kind of books is to actually take in, learn and be able to apply the things it’s telling you. Not to simply get to the end of as many as possible. So when you’re listening, use that pause and rewind button as often as is needed.

Pause to muse over something if it needs to sink in. Rewind several times, if needed, to go over something if you missed, didn’t hear or got distracted from it.

I also made sure that I paused at the end of the chapter or section and didn’t come back to it until I’d made my notes. There’s nothing worse than opening up your notes and trying to remember something from several chapters ago (and needing to spend ages sat there making notes in one sitting).

Bonus Point #3: Revisit Your Notes

Of course, there’s no final exam in any of this. If there is then you’re probably taking this too seriously. And it’s not necessary that you memorise any of these books in a way that you can recite every chapter.

But, in my opinion, you do want it to sink in as much as possible and to be able to apply the contents of these books to the relevant areas of your life. If you read something and then a month later can’t even remember what it was about, then it’s kinda pointless.

So I also make a point to go over my notes once finishing an audio book. Just brushing through, jogging my memory and trying to get it all to sink in as much as possible. Only then will I consider moving on to a new one.

Plus, the beauty of this note taking system is that you obviously have those notes available to you for as long as you keep them. So you can keep coming back to them and reminding yourself of any particularly poignant books.

Note: if you want to see how I did this then I uploaded my notes on the book “Mastery” by Robert Greene (an absolute beast and one of my very few ‘must read’ non-fiction books. You can see the notes here.

  • Tangible advice Michael. Thanks for the tips